A welcome initiative by President Carter

Former US President Carter’s recent conversations with President Granger and Opposition Leader Jagdeo in an initiative to get high-level dialogue between the two leaders going is most welcome. Mr Carter’s ministrations over the years to lubricate political engagement and substantive reforms have been most welcome in the milieu of intractability and the two-party domination of the landscape.

Whatever statesmanship, heft and credibility President Carter brings to the initiative it still leaves comprehensive dialogue in the hands of President Granger and Mr Jagdeo. They have to commit to ground-breaking change that goes against the tide of their traditional thinking and that of their constituencies if dialogue is to work. Previous attempts at wide-ranging dialogue between former President Jagdeo and former President Hoyte and later, former PNCR Leader, Mr Corbin failed after promising starts.

Over the last month, the transformation of Ethiopian-Eritrean relations is an example to our two leaders of the results that can arise from visionary leadership. The ascent of Abiy Ahmed, 42, to the prime ministership of Ethiopia has seen him in conjunction with his Eritrean counterpart sweeping away old animosities and preparing the pathway for an honourable settlement of longstanding disputes.

Such spectacular openings may not readily be on the horizon here but the gaping wounds of the society and the divisions among the people cry out for some signal. Whereas the advent of the APNU+AFC coalition in 2015 had promised a new type of inclusive governance and an engagement with all sides, it has flattered to deceive. Not only did it breach its solemn commitment to trade unions to permit free collective bargaining, it also abandoned a fervent promise to initiate constitutional reforms which could have contemplated mechanisms to heal some of the divisions besetting the country.

Further, in the period since May 2015, through the agency of forensic audits and a flurry of investigations, the government has made it clear that members of the previous administration were in its sights for charges which extended to the so-called Pradoville Two housing scheme. There is nothing wrong with holding these former officials accountable except that the law enforcers have bumbled along for many months with grand displays of detaining and questioning these former government officials without being able to institute charges and this has muddied relations between the two sides.

For its part, the PPP/C had 23 years in office to spur genuine dialogue and to pursue various mechanisms to fully involve the opposition and its constituency in inclusive governance. It was not prepared to pursue this with any measure of sincerity and conviction. 

With the approach of the oil economy, it has been apparent that neither APNU+AFC nor the PPP has any other goal in mind but the winning of the 2020 general election. The focus solely on winning plurality in 2020 is dangerous considering what is at stake for the country. There is no doubt that while an oil economy can be a great boon for the country, the pathway is strewn with many pitfalls and stumbling blocks that can nullify gains.

No other issue aside from  the formation of an oil industry here offers both the greatest opportunity in decades and an existential threat to the interests of this country. The broad and fierce debate here over the last year or so has made it patently clear that neither the administration nor the people who presently staff the government agencies dealing with oil and gas are equal to the task.

What the public has seen from this government on oil readiness is a combination of duplicity, incompetence, ill-preparation and undue deference to oil companies such as ExxonMobil. The secret signing of a Production Sharing Agreement, the hidden signing bonus, absence of questioning over claimed pre-contract costs, weak provisions for environmental protection and absence of an adequate human resource base are few but ample aspects of threats facing the country’s interests now and into the future.

The question of the apportioning of proceeds from oil and exactly how they will be managed to avoid theft and political manipulation are also major issues to be resolved. With an already fractious and divisive political climate two years away from general elections, the last thing that the country needs is the `winner’ of these polls presiding over a restive society and unstable government while being at risk to weak regulatory agencies and the machinations of the oil majors.

The combined energies and resources of the people, the government and the opposition are needed in 2020 if the country is to have a real chance of benefiting from oil proceeds while warding off the dangers of the resource curse and predatory oil companies.

As said before, where this dialogue heads is entirely in the hands of President Granger and Opposition Leader Jagdeo. Given all of the unfulfilled promises that APNU+AFC made in its 2015 manifesto, that may be the proximate launching pad.

On the question of political reforms, Foundation Four of the APNU+AFC manifesto had said in part: “APNU+AFC recognize that the Constitution, in its current form, does not serve the best interest of Guyana or its people. Within three months of taking up office, APNU+AFC will appoint a Commission to amend the Constitution with the full participation of the people. The new Constitution will put the necessary checks and balances in place to consolidate our ethos of liberal democracy…” Nothing has happened here.

Among the elements of APNU+AFC’s proposed revised constitution were:

1. The President should be elected by a majority of electors.

2. There should be separate elections to the presidency and the national assembly

3. Executive power should be shared between the President, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

4. The Cabinet should comprise members of the parties which have achieved at least 15% of the vote of the national elections.

5. The Prime Minister shall be the person who secures the second highest votes in the presidential elections.

6. The members of the Cabinet are subject to the approval of, and removal by, the national assembly.

President Granger is said to have signalled that the government wants to have bilateral talks on oil and gas, crime and the environment while the PPP is to consider the way forward and whether other areas should be added to the list.

The prospect of high-level talks is one optimistic note in the recent cascade of discord on many fronts. President Carter should be commended for his continuing interest in the welfare of the country.

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